Living so Close yet Be so Apart

This post will only make sense to those living in thriving fast growing regions such as where I live in the heart of Silicon Valley in California. I moved here more than five decades ago first to go to college before it became famous for technology then to work in the birthplace of semiconductors and home to such greats as Robert Noyce, Andy Grove, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs who shaped our area to what it is famously called, Silicon Valley. Today it is far less about silicon than it is about high-tech industries but that spirit of developing new and innovative technologies still thrives.

Much of this region grew quickly starting around the early 1970’s with people moving here from all over the nation and world and from here to there within the Valley as job opportunities rapidly expanded. That still has not changed and in many cases is accelerating. Because of the high rate of housing turnovers in neighborhoods fewer and fewer neighbors got to know each other. We became strangers within our midst. Fewer kids played in the streets with other neighboring kids. Block parties disappeared and neighbors would occasionally wave to one another as they passed.  But changes take decades of transitioning to happen, at least until more recently.

But long before the 1960 this was largely a rural farming area with larger orchard of fruit trees scattered throughout the south bay and small cities scattered here and there. These communities consisted of small neighborhoods with neighborhood grocery store, drugstores, farm supply stores, and a hardware store all not far from where people lived. Family doctors used to visit their patients at home. A mixture of residential and commercial property was not uncommon. People built residences and businesses where they made most sense nearby or within neighborhoods. These mixed use areas established real active neighborhoods where neighbors met one another while walking pass on the streets or when shopping and shop owners knew residents by their first names. Houses may have been further apart than they are today but neighbors were closer linked with one another at worked, while shopping, and living in these relatively stable communities. Kids in these mixed use neighborhoods also mingled more with one another and with shop owners and other neighborhood families and often formed extended families-like bonds who looked after one another.

Then government started to zone cities for specific uses in the 40s and ’50s because that made city planning easier to manage and tax structure easier to set up and enforce. So residential areas were segregated from commercial area forcing residents to work and shop in more remote centralized areas. Now residents from different neighborhoods worked and shopped together with fewer opportunities to form close social bonds. Neighbors still knew neighbors but that close daily contact between neighbors at work and during shopping was missing so even though neighbors physically lived more closely together opportunities for frequent and extended contact and socializing were more limited. But jobs and neighborhoods were still fairly stable as growth was still relatively slow. People knew those who lived in their immediate neighborhood, but that old closeness started to fade and relationships became more fragmented.

Then came the era of technology where job opportunities exploded and people from all over the country and world came to seek job opportunities here. This influx of new residents from different geographical regions and cultures displaced more established residents so even next door neighbors became strangers. Often residents would move there and stay for only 5 to 10 years where in the past families stayed for generations. Neighbors largely lived separate lives rarely greeting one another or getting to know one another. Shopping centers were located far from many residential areas making commuting by car essential and making encounters with neighbors even more rare. Everyone seemed so busy living their own separate lives with little time or interests to know even their immediate neighbors. So though we now live so closely together we seem so distant from one another. The world has become too mobile like turning molecules of water from ice into a puddle of water then to steam when placed on a hot surface where collisions between molecules become less likely as they bounce further apart.

There seems to be a correlation between the closeness of families and how communities are socially fragmenting. In the early days strong nuclear families were common where children, parent, grand parents, uncles, aunts and cousins lived within a few of blocks from one another. That nuclear family started to fall apart as community neighborhoods began to fragment. Today with our high divorce rates even core family structures are becoming less the norm. Many children grow up with step parents or with single parents. Often siblings become estranged from one another and cousins never meet.

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are replacing face to face relationships. This provides the illusion that people can look at the profiles of others to meet people of similar interests or to read what others post before inviting them into their sphere of global friendships. But sometimes people are not who they portray themselves to be on social media occasionally with disastrous results. So this is the way people get to know one another these days and it is becoming more and more mainstream. So people are becoming more close to one another from far away without ever having met. We are starting to live more virtual lives instead of establish physical relationships. It makes one ponder what the future has in store as we replace our physical relationships with virtual ones and where neighbors are strangers and strangers we have never met so far away become our closest friends.

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